Stairway to heaven

 

ARTS:English director Kevin Allen has settled into life at his wife's family's estate in Co Monaghan - he tends to the pigs, helps with the maintenance, enjoys a pint in the local . . . and he has helped create one of the most unique summer events going - the Flatlake Literary and Arts Festival We're a borderland landscape, between new Ireland and old Ireland, a blend of nouveau riche and old, rural values, writes SORCHA HAMILTON

IT'S NOT ALL wellies and tweeds at Hilton Park. Life on the big country estate can be hard work. Maintaining the period house, and the extensive woodlands, lakes and the Lovers' Walk, has become more of a challenge over the years. And when you're living on a 600-acre estate, mowing the grass, for example, is no small undertaking.

Director and writer Kevin Allen swapped the glamour of Hollywood to move to Co Monaghan after he met his wife, Laura Madden, in Los Angeles. They decided to move to Ireland and raise their children at the Hilton Park estate, near Clones, which has been in the Madden family since the 18th century. Allen designed and built a wooden eco-house in the orchard of the grounds. Now it's apples and pigs, not movies, which take up most of Allen's time.

Allen is the uncle of popstar Lily Allen and the brother of actor Keith Allen who starred in, among many other roles, Blur's Country House video, a cheeky take on escaping the city rat-race for a rural haven.

A self-professed "yuppie farmer", Allen is from a Welsh-English background. "It's an artist's dream here," he says, lighting up a cigarette. "We're a borderland landscape, between new Ireland and old Ireland, a blend of nouveau riche and old, rural values." His eco-home is a spacious, bright place with breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and orchards. It's a relaxed, lived-in kind of home, and Allen insists on making toast for me from his wife's home-made bread. While Allen continues to direct TV and film - he directed the movie Twin Town, and was nominated for a Bafta award earlier this year for the TV series Benidorm - he certainly has his hands full with four children under the age of seven.

But marrying into the family of the big house brought its challenges. Maintenance and conservation of the house and grounds is costly.

"You need a lot of money, literally just to keep this place ticking over - to keep the wolf from the door," Allen says. The Madden family wanted to avoid the fate of other estates around the country, which have been bought out by large hotel chains. "Any idiot can go and borrow a few million and put a pool and a nail parlour in - I wouldn't have any connection with that, nor would Laura or any of the others in the family, we wouldn't live here," Allen says. Often these commercial interests create a corporate brand that has no relationship with the surrounding community, a connection the Madden family is keen to maintain.

Allen's parents-in-law, Johnny and Lucy Madden, have run the main house as a guest house for the past 25 years, perfect for small house parties and noted for Lucy Madden's food. They provide a quiet, stately home experience, catering for the guests themselves, making their own bread and using vegetables grown on the land. The six bedrooms, none of which have telephones or televisions, have views over the green acres of the estate.

Fred Madden, a trained chef, is set to take over the running of the guesthouse when his parents retire. Hilton Park was burnt down in 1803, after a servant accidentally left a bucket of coals unattended. As the story goes, the house burned for two days, the glow being seen from Clones. It was rebuilt over the next 15 years under the auspices of then head of the house, John Madden, who transformed it into an Italian "palazzo". Apart from having central heating and electricity, the house has remained largely unchanged since then. It is furnished with period pieces that have been in the family for generations, such as the hallway portraits or the Erard concert grand piano, contemporary with Chopin and perhaps even played by the great composer. Even the driveway, more than a mile long, is a beautiful stretch along rolling hills lined with trees unique to the area, many of them imported and planted by the Maddens' ancestors.

"It's so unspoilt here - these places are going to become rarer and rarer," Allen says.

Fascinated by the historical legacy of imperialism, Allen is currently developing a four-part drama series on the theme, called One Hundred Years. "It's a historical odyssey, looking at imperialism through a different prism," he says. Using Hilton Park as a template, the TV series will explore one family through the generations.

"I'm kind of neutral here. I've got fresh eyes and I come from a different background, with a different view of what I see," he says. But is there any resentment from the surrounding community, an overhang from the days of landlordism?

"All the people I drink with in the local have either worked here or know someone who's worked here over the past 70 years, and genuinely speak fondly of this place. It was a major source of employment as a working estate," Allen says. At one point, there were 160 people employed on the land. "This place used to be really alive," he says, "with tons of people working here - it was a hive of activity." Drinking in the local pub, Connolly's, was the best way to get settled into the Clones community, Allen explains. "It's a proper country pub," he says.

It's also where he met the author Pat McCabe, who is co-organising the Flatlake alternative arts festival which is taking place on the estate at the end of August (see panel). Allen is also writing a thriller movie with McCabe, loosely based on Night of the Hunter.

"As an extended family, the decision has been made for this place to exist from an artistic stance," Allen says. The Flatlake festival is one way to do this. "The Flatlake is not a profit-making event, we just roll the money over for next year. Indirectly, it contributes to the upkeep of Hilton, by putting it on the map, and the infrastructure we put in for the festival contributes to the upkeep of the estate - with new water lines, gravelling, things like that."

While McCabe and Allen were offered money from the Arts Council, they decided to fund the festival independently instead, and without any terms. Keeping it logo-free was key.

"We wanted to get funding through creative sponsorship. There's a way of having advertising without it being in your face," Allen says. "We connected Pat the Baker with our Welsh choir - who are going to sing its theme tune at the festival." Champion Milk is also sponsoring the event. "Anyone can do a kind of alcopop or beer deal - we want to do it differently."

McCabe and Allen were also determined to involve the Clones community in the festival. While the event includes plenty of big-name writers, it features a number of artists and authors from the area, and musical competitions and workshops for children.

"There's a lot of goodwill here in Clones for us to do well, on their behalf," says Allen. "That's what's so lovely about it." Allen would also like to expand the festival into a Flatlake multimedia concept, which would scout for local talent in film, acting and writing. He is also considering the possibility of running another festival on the estate, perhaps arts or jazz, at the end of the summer. "I would do some sort of commercial event as long as it was enjoyable and had some sort of creative slant," he says. "The music festival, and the likes of the Electric Picnic, already exists, it's a flooded market."

For the moment, however, it's the pigs that need his attention. Allen wanders down to the pen, a short stroll from his house. He tosses large buckets of lettuce and leftovers to the dozen or so pigs scrambling around, snorting and jostling each other. One or two of them, no doubt, will roast on the spit to feed the crowds at the upcoming Flatlake festival.

"They have a great little life here," Allen says, lifting up the wheelbarrow and heading off to the barn to get some grain.